Irish Ethnology.

Taken from the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Volume 8, 1860

WE beg to direct the attention of our readers to the following communication, from one of the Editors of an important work now in progress, on the Ethnology of the British Islands. The subject is entirely in accordance with the objects of this Journal, and we feel every desire to co-operate in an investigation which must tend to throw considerable light on the origin of our population. It is well known that Ireland is now inhabited by the descendants of a great many races of people; and it is a fact, that several of these are still quite distinguishable from each other, either by personal appearance, names, or other characteristics.

A traveller is at once struck with the difference of race apparent between the people, for instance, of Cork and Antrim, of Tipperary and Donegal, and can hardly believe that the stalwart County Down farmer, of Herculean proportions, is a countryman of the diminutive mountaineer of Mayo or Leitrim. History accounts for some of these differences, by having recorded the settlement of foreign colonies in various parts of the country, such as of Scotch Highlanders, on the coast of Antrim; Anglo-Saxons, in Wexford; and Norwegians or Danes on several parts of our shores; not to speak of the more recent colonies of Lowland Scotch, and French Huguenots; but these settlements have all taken place in a period within the reach of authentic history, and there is little difficulty in distinguishing the descendants of those several races at the present day. The population which preceded them is also known, from our ancient Annals, to have been composed of various tribes of distinct origin, and even their places of residence have been recorded; but no information has been yet collected to enable us to determine how far these tribes are represented by any portion of our present population. It is our belief that much can yet be done to throw light on this curious subject. Until a late period, various circumstances contributed to keep asunder the different races. One of the most powerful of these was the influence of the old system of clanship, and its consequent feuds and jealousies, perpetuated from generation to generation : and it is quite possible yet to point out on the map the districts where certain tribes lived exclusively, and where, in most cases, some of their lineal descendants still survive.

The surnames (or what were formerly the tribe-names,) are here generally a sure indication of race: and nowhere, perhaps, in Europe are these so available for ethnological purposes as in Ireland. But changes are rapidly taking place, and no time is to be lost in recording the vestiges which remain. The breaking up of old local associations, caused by the extensive sales of estates to new proprietors, the destruction produced by the famine of 1845-1847, the vast and increasing emigration to America, and finally, the displacement of the population now daily caused by the facility of railway communication and the increase of our large towns, will soon obliterate all certain traces of former diversity of race. It is, therefore, highly desirable that information should be collected without delay to assist the inquiries of the ethnologist. The nature of this information is indicated by the Queries proposed in the following letter; and it will be at once seen that it can be readily obtained, in most cases, by any intelligent observers residing in different parts of the country. Communications on the subject may either be addressed to this Journal for publication, or forwarded to the gentleman whose address is here given. [EDIT.

To the Editor of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology.

"DEAR SIR,--In reply to your polite and obliging inquiries, I have the pleasure to inform you that the object of the Crania Britannica is to rescue from destruction the chiefest and most characteristic personal remains which exist of ancient races of the people of the primaeval period--the people of the cromlechs, cairns, tumuli, and barrows, whether ancient Hibernians or Britons, Caledonians, Picts, or Scots, Angles or Saxons, Danes or Northmen--of the British, Roman, or Anglo-Saxon eras;--to give to these as faithful and permanent a record as is attainable by modern art, and to illustrate them as fully as possible by anthropological science. Four Decades of the work have already seen the light, containing, in their forty full-sized lithographic figures of ancient skulls, a pretty ample exemplification of the whole subject; together with copious descriptions, accounts of ancient modes of burial, and of the various antiquities found in barrows and other tombs, (illustrated with numerous figures)--the whole being preceded by a text, the greater part of which is devoted to a dissertation on the ancient inhabitants of the British Islands, as they were known to the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans; their mode of life, moral characteristics and manners, dwellings, fortifications, architecture, clothing, personal decorations, armour and military equipment, metallurgy and other arts, basket-work, pottery, navigation, trade, coinage, religious institutions and temples, mythology, &c.

"The design of the book is entirely national; and the most liberal aid has been afforded in the way of specimens of crania and other antiquities, from all parts of the kingdom, especially Scotland. Ireland, however, stands alone in it, being represented by one single skull, viz. that from the Knock-Maraidhe cromlech, in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, solely from the impossibility of meeting with another example from the tumuli so profusely scattered over the island, in a suitable condition to be engraved. Such have been earnestly sought for, and are ardently desired, but can only be supplied by the active exertions and generous assistance of Irish archaeologists themselves. At the present time, they will not yet be too late.

"In furtherance of the Crania Britannica, the circular which follows has been printed for private distribution, and for which a place is desired in the Ulster Journal, as a means of making it better known among those able to promote the objects in view.

"The importance of the investigation undertaken in the Crania Britannica, of the craniological and ethnological facts derived from the study of the physical and the physiological peculiarities of the ancient and modern races--duly restrained within the limits of natural science--can be but faintly estimated by those who have watched the fanciful and erratic speculations founded on philological grounds merely. If indisputable solutions of problems which have puzzled all former investigators cannot be educed, at least reliable data will be collected."

"A few Ethnological Queries, To serve as a Guide in collecting Information respecting the Inhabitants of the British Islands.

"Under the impression that the present inhabitants of the British Islands, especially in some of the more remote and exclusively rural districts, still retain the peculiar features of their lineage and descent, and may, before any further amalgamation is effected by the increased means of communication and intercourse now in use, be recognized, if not actually referred to their original stocks--the following Queries have been prepared to guide those persons who may have the kindness to render any assistance in determining this interesting problem.

"In carrying out the design of the Crania Britannica,[1] a work specially devoted to investigations regarding the ancient inhabitants of the British Isles, it has become apparent that any reliable accounts of the older populations now dwelling in districts which have for ages been little disturbed by the intrusion of fresh elements, would be of great importance and value. In order, therefore, to induce those observers who are placed in situations favourable for ascertaining the physical and other peculiar characters of the people surrounding them, to communicate the results of what they have perceived, these Queries are presented--with a view to facilitate the process and to suggest subjects of inquiry--under the persuasion that there are many who would be willing to aid so curious a scientific investigation, by supplying a few facts. However few and apparently unimportant such facts may be, they will be thankfully received, and when used, duly acknowledged. By accumulation and comparison, the value of such facts will be materially increased. The Queries are designed to suggest further research, and have no pretensions to exhaust a subject, which some more attentive students may see in its more enlarged bearings, and also be able to illustrate more fully.

"It would be well to extend the observations to at least twenty adult males of average character,--if selected, to be selected on account of the ancient settlement of their families in the district--and to state the number upon which special observations have been made. Where opportunity favours, a larger field of inquiry, as a parish, barony, or any natural division of country, might be advantageously taken.


"1. What is the stature, or average stature? Whether ascertained by measure? What is the minimum stature for admission into the militia of the county?

"2. What is the average bulk or weight? Are the people bulky or slender, as compared with Irishmen of other districts? Do they appear to present any peculiarities of figure, such as unusual length or shortness of limbs?

"3. What is the character of the face? Is it long, oval, broad, round, thin, short, florid, pale, light, or dark? Are the cheek-bones or the brows prominent? Is the forehead rounded or square? Is the nose long, straight, aquiline, short, or prominent? Is the chin broad or narrow, prominent or receding?

" 4. What is the colour of the hair? Is it black, dark, brown, fair, or red? Can any proportion of these colours be given? Is it often curly? Is the body comparatively hairy or smooth?

" 5. What is the colour of the eyes? Are they black, dark, intermediate, light, grey; or what is the proportion of these?

"6. What is the size and form of the skull? Is it large, small, or of moderate size, long or short, broad or narrow? The size is easily ascertained by passing a tape, graduated in inches and 10ths, round the head at its greatest circumference, viz., round the forehead, temples, and hindhead.

"7. Is it possible to obtain skulls, whether ancient or modern, of inhabitants of the district?

" 8. Are there any photographs, prints, or drawings obtainable, which afford the portraiture of the people in a tolerably faithful manner?

" 9. Are there any peculiar family-names? What are the most common names?

"10. To what race of people are the inhabitants of the district usually referred? Has any foreign colony ever settled in it? Has there been much immigration into it of late years? Do the inhabitants often marry with strangers, or have they kept their blood pure?

"Communications are requested to be addressed to,

Dear Sir, your obedient Servant,




[1] Crania Britannica. Delineations and Descriptions of the Skulls of the Aboriginal and Early Inhabitants of the British Islands; together with Notices of their other Remains &c., By Joseph Barnard Davis, M.R.C.S.E., F.S.A., and John Thurnam, M.D., F.S.A., &c. In Six Decades of Ten Plates, Imperial Quarto, at One Guinea each Decade. Four of these have already been issued.